Full Dissent: When gay rights and religious rights collide
Canada’s National Post published a roundtable on Friday about when religious rights and the rights of sex and gender minorities collide, in the form of school board policies to protect and affirm LGBT kids. The roundtable focuses specifically one such policy being proposed in Edmonton by the Edmonton Public School Board (EPSB), although this is on the heels of a similar dispute that took place in Burnaby, B.C. The Post’s question:
In a multicultural society, what do you do when two different sets of cultural and ethical values come into conflict? As in other parts of Canada, Edmonton public schools are trying to find a policy to balance the equality rights of gay, lesbian and transgendered students and parents, with the traditional religious beliefs of some of its faith-based schools and programs. Should one take precedence over the other? How do you find a compromise when some faiths and cultures allow for no compromise on certain beliefs?
Of their three columnists, all pretty much agreed that people of faith who are outspokenly opposed to gayness of any form should not have to affirm LGBTTIQ kids. Since they couldn’t find a dissenting opinion at all, I’ll be happy to provide one.
First, Some Background
The Edmonton Public School Board (EPSB) has drafted a policy which has gone through initial review and will likely be voted on in the fall of 2011. The draft reads (I’ve not quoted the full text, but you can read it here):
The Board will ensure that school cultures are safe, inclusive, equitable, and welcoming for all people regardless of their actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. The Board believes that all sexual and gender minority students, staff, families and same-sex parented families have the right to:
- be free from harassment, prejudice, discrimination, intimidation, bullying, and violence;
- be treated fairly, equitably, and with dignity and respect;
- have their confidentiality protected and respected;
- self-identification and determination;
- freedom of conscience, expression, and association;
- be included, affirmed, and represented in an inclusive, positive, and respectful manner by all school personnel;
- have equitable access to the same supports, services, and protections provided to heterosexual students and families;
- have avenues of recourse (without fear of reprisal) available to them when they are victims of harassment, prejudice, discrimination, intimidation, bullying, and/or violence; and
- have their unique identities, families, cultures, and communities valued and affirmed within all aspects of the school environment.
Local Christian organizations have expressed concern that the policy will negatively affect the religious freedom and values of their members. While affirming the need for loving responses to all people regardless of “sexual orientation,” the groups say that to affirm the types of “sexual orientation” protected in the policy would violate their personal faith beliefs.
Paula Simons at The Edmonton Journal points out that there are shades of grey involved, since one of the public schools is a Jewish school, some were integrated from former private schools, seven use a Christian curriculum called LOGOS, and a new Muslim curriculum was developed for use wherever it might be requested. One highly-contested public school board has been under fire because it is Catholic-administered in an area where no secular education is available at all, and fired a teacher specifically because of his transition to male — all the while arguing that because they’re Catholic administered, their mandate as Catholics require theologically-driven operations and belief-infused instruction. The LOGOS program sent out a press release, which claims the EPSB’s policy draft violates their freedom of religion, and says that (emphasis theirs):
… if the policy developed by the Policy Review Committee means that our Logos teachers and principals would no longer be able to express freely in their classrooms that the homosexual lifestyle is not in accord with their Christian beliefs, and that they would be required to “affirm” homosexual lifestyle as acceptable to traditional Christian family values, then we cannot accept this.
This violates the motion approved by former Trustees which inaugurated the Logos Program on January 23, 1996. That document states that, “A fundamental purpose [of the Logos program] would be to support the traditional values of the home… [and] a teacher in this program would be expected to bring a Christian viewpoint to issues and topics from all curriculum areas… Furthermore, sex education would emphasize traditional Christian and family values.”
When the Burnaby School District passed a similar policy, it didn’t include language regarding affirming LGBTTIQ students, though it did include requirements to support them when needed. Affirmation wasn’t the issue there, and yet the vote and passage was the focus of a month-long firestorm that saw the formation of a group called The Parents Voice, which is now encouraging parents to pull their kids from classes they feel might express that it’s okay to be gay or trans. The Catholic Civil Rights League is doing the same.
Alberta already has such a law — the first of its kind anywhere on the planet — which requires that anything that might be contrary to someone’s theological beliefs needs to be preceded with enough advance notice that children can be evacuated without penalty, so the EPSB policy is already subject to the need to provide advance warning, anyway (and any teaching regarding sexual and orientation was treated that way long before the parental rights clause was added to Alberta’s Human Rights act, anyway).
Canada’s Fight Over Gay-Straight Alliances
This is also taking place at a time when the Ontario Catholic School Boards have been going the opposite direction, in order to ban Gay-Straight Alliances in their schools. The Halton Catholic School Board decided to allow “SIDEspaces” instead, so that diversity could be promoted, while still asserting that “gay is not an identity,” and that gay people are “immoral and sinful.” One school in the Dufferin-Peel district banned rainbows when students wanted to organize an anti-homophobia event, so students baked multicolour cupcakes, instead. And the Toronto Catholic School Board has now proposed policy amendments that will be voted on in the fall:
One proposed amendment states that the Catholic board’s denominational rights “take precedence over human rights protections.”Another takes aim at gay-straight alliances (GSAs): “The board will approve only clubs which [sic] have goals that are not inconsistent with Catholic faith and the Catholic Church’s moral and doctrinal teachings.”
LifeSiteNews provides the wackiest take on that debate thus far, claiming that Gay-Straight Alliances cause cancer (warning — broad-brush generalizations ahead which totally fail to take into account the marginalizing and dehumanizing effects of societal homophobia):
Gay men are more likely to smoke (a risk for lung cancer), far more likely to contract a sexually transmitted disease, such as human papilloma virus (a risk for anal cancer) or hepatitis (a risk for liver cancer) or HIV/AIDS (a risk for a score of different cancers). They are more likely to begin sexual activity at an earlier age, to abuse drugs and alcohol, to be depressed or suffer from other psychological disorders, all of which affect health and often delay the seeking medical care. The politically correct response to the study was not of course “maybe there is something unhealthy about gay sex,” but rather ‘we need to get rid of homophobia in the health care system.’ This is absurd since there are clinics especially designed to treat gay men in major urban areas and HIV treatment centers have gone out of their way to be sensitive to sexual orientation.
… Of course, if the gay activists admit there is a direct link between the gay behavior and cancer, they would have to admit that the Gay Straight Alliances (GSA) they are pushing in high schools across the country are not protecting the students’ health, but endangering it. GSAs encourage students suffering from Gender Identity Disorder or victims of childhood sexual abuse or just confused to self-identify as gay or bisexual.
Students in Ontario are now forming a Catholic Students for GSAs coalition, and planning to march at Toronto Pride.
That is, the wackiest Canadian take on this. Much like Brad Trost’s Planned Parenthood gaffe, the fight over anti-bullying legislation, curriculums and Gay-Straight Alliances isn’t happening in a vacuum. This is also happening extensively in the US, where some of the far-right leaders are going farther — such as one Tea Party leader who claims that bullying is just “healthy peer pressure:“
According to men like Swier, these astronomical suicide rates have nothing to do with the relentless hatred gay youth have to endure from bigots and bullies like themselves; the kids are the ones at fault for their own misery.
All of this means that the EPSB proposal is happening amidst a firestorm of fear of anything that might create an environment where students are free from repression, intimidation, bullying, shame and even violence for being different. Because anything that supports LGBTTIQ kids’ freedom to be out without harassment is “anti-family” and a violation of religious freedom.
I do want to add one important caveat, that this impulse to harass, intimidate and condemn gay, bi and trans kids is not intrinsic to all religions, and not even to all Christian faiths. Following the United Church’s lead, many faiths have indeed declared themselves to be affirming, and positive, progressive statements of empathy for LGBTTIQ people have been happening with greater frequency in recent years. A recent poll suggests that a majority of Christians support gay rights (although in the interest of transparency, the poll was commissioned by the LGB organization, the Human Rights Campaign). And to date, 229 faith leaders have signed on to The Heartland Proclamation, which states (you need to read the whole link to appreciate the importance of this):
Homosexuality is not a sickness, not a choice, and not a sin. We find no rational biblical or theological basis to condemn or deny the rights of any person based on sexual orientation. Silence by many has allowed political and religious rhetoric to monopolize public perception, creating the impression that there is only one Christian perspective on this issue. Yet we recognize and celebrate that we are far from alone, as Christians, in affirming that LGBT persons are distinctive, holy, and precious gifts to all who struggle to become the family of God.
In repentance and obedience to the Holy Spirit, we stand in solidarity as those who are committed to work and pray for full acceptance and inclusion of LGBT persons in our churches and in our world. We lament that LGBT persons are condemned and excluded by individuals and institutions, political and religious, who claim to be speaking the truth of Christian teaching. This leads directly and indirectly to intolerance, discrimination, suffering, and even death….
The National Post’s roundtable features columnists Lorne Gunter, Matt Gurney and Barbara Kay answering the question posed at the beginning of this article. The roundtable is a follow-up to Gunter’s earlier editorial, Religion, politics collide in school board:
Short of the “affirmation” clause, that is largely consistent with New Testament teaching.
… if, by definition, affirmation must equal approval of a belief or behaviour (and that appears to be the board’s intent), then the EPSB will never be able to find accommodation between its new respect policy and the beliefs of those who attend and teach at Logos, the Christian-based program that exists at seven public schools.
Gurney and Kay reiterate objections to the “affirm” clause, in responses that even Gurney characterizes as “Ditto.”
Firstly, I’m glad that Gunter, Gurney and Kay do agree that schools need to ensure a safe, harassment- and bullying-free environment for lesbian, gay, bi and trans kids. There are certainly people out there who believe that schools’ focus should be on turning these kids “ex-gay” (like an infamous clinic in Toronto tries to do) and characterize any anti-bullying policy as promoting a deviant agenda.
But kids absolutely do have a right to be affirmed as people, no matter how they might identify themselves. I say that as someone who recognizes that children and teens are complex but rational, far from the helpless victims we tend to see them as, and very often far more mature than we give them credit for. I personally do not subscribe to the “heads as empty vessels theory” that postulates that they just accept anything that we put in there. Underlying the fear of orientation and gender identity -inclusive sex education is a belief that kids are vulnerable to “recruiting,” which is an argument that only works if you believe that kids have no will of their own and that one’s sexuality is entirely a choice — my experience tells me otherwise on both counts.
One thing I do know is that we experience life — and particularly emotion — much more intensely when we’re young. And in a society that is still so entirely pervasive with homophobic and transphobic attitudes, disenfranchisements and signals, the absence of affirmation of students’ right to seek identity and claim the one that fits them becomes a suffocating vacuum of fear of stepping outside the rules that police gender and orientation, thus inviting wrath. It’s a literal hell to live through.
The mere absence of bullying — assuming that any policy could actually guarantee it in real life — is not going to accomplish an environment where kids are able to live and breathe and find the freedom to become people functioning at their fullest potential. Any change to the EPSB policy’s “affirming” stance absolutely should come with a commitment to providing positive support when it is needed.
I admit I am a bit conflicted about freedom of speech for people of faith (which I realize is important) and might relent if I thought that said speech could be directed in a non-personal way, such as criticizing practices rather than people. No less than the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Albert Mohler, has admitted that “We’ve lied about the nature of homosexuality and have practiced what can only be described as a form of homophobia” which keeps LGBTTIQ people out of churches — and although he still believes (as is his right) that homosexuality is sinful and that a lifetime of chastity is what is needed, he has come out in favour of affirming people, free of fear, shaming and targeting. However, condemnation of sexual orientation and gender identity is still so pervasive in our society — and sometimes even in kids’ own homes — that it is felt to be the norm unless told otherwise. So the forseeable future, it’s still far more important for kids to have affirming spaces than to have the ever-present negativity invading them.
I will grant the mainstream media one argument against the affirmation portion of the EPSB policy that I think is important to consider. Paula Simons blogs in a follow-up to her article that:
I think it’s better for children to be as integrated as possible. Logos kids share the same school facilities with other children – at Killarney school in north-central Edmonton, for example, the Logos program shares a facility with an Arabic bilingual program, which means Christian and Muslim children actually go to school side by side. I think that’s a much better model than ghettoizing kids in their own silos.
Theological conservatives have been increasingly pushing parents to move their children to private schools, where they will never have to be exposed to ideas that challenge their beliefs. It would be tragic if that were to happen, at the very least because facing different ideas helps kids develop critical thinking, and the whole drive for segregated schools assumes that they’re incapable of that and thus need protection (it doesn’t show a whole lot of faith in the “truth” people are professing to believe, either, if they’re afraid diversity will make people abandon it that easily).
But ultimately, it’s important to ensure that children and teens have at least one space in their lives where they can be reasonably assured of finding affirmation and dignity. And the value of sending a signal to students that kids who are different are valued, rather than the school’s “dirty little secret” shouldn’t be discounted, either. Merely protecting them from the harassment that school adminstrators are aware of (assuming that students feel safe enough to report it) can never accomplish that.
LifeSiteNews has been kind enough to link to a brochure which gives contact information for the Edmonton Public School Board, and has encouraged their readers to flood them with condemnation of the proposal. Supporters who want to end bullying of kids and create safe spaces are certainly welcome to write in to express their own views.